Background: The detection of associations between protein complexes and human inherited diseases is of great importance in understanding mechanisms of diseases. Dysfunctions of a protein complex are usually defined by its member disturbance and consequently result in certain diseases. Although individual disease proteins have been widely predicted, computational methods are still absent for systematically investigating disease-related protein complexes. Results: We propose a method, MAXCOM, for the prioritization of candidate protein complexes. MAXCOM performs a maximum information flow algorithm to optimize relationships between a query disease and candidate protein complexes through a heterogeneous network that is constructed by combining protein-protein interactions and disease phenotypic similarities. Cross-validation experiments on 539 protein complexes show that MAXCOM can rank 382 (70.87%) protein complexes at the top against protein complexes constructed at random. Permutation experiments further confirm that MAXCOM is robust to the network structure and parameters involved. We further analyze protein complexes ranked among top ten for breast cancer and demonstrate that the SWI/SNF complex is potentially associated with breast cancer. Conclusions: MAXCOM is an effective method for the discovery of disease-related protein complexes based on network optimization. The high performance and robustness of this approach can facilitate not only pathologic studies of diseases, but also the design of drugs targeting on multiple proteins.